Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Customer is Number... 2?

By the time I witnessed my first cashier meeting I had already figured out that it would be a pointless exercise. There are supposed to be regularly scheduled meetings for every position in the store, but in reality they occur far less frequently. I think this just fine by most associates since the meetings are mandatory and require many of them to make a special trip into the store on their day off or after their shift for 30 minutes of lecturing. The meeting was run by the CSM’s and was really just a laundry list of pet peeves they had about cashiers. Most interesting though were their instructions for dealing with customers. We were to have a “sense of urgency” when taking our break, being sure to take off our vest on the way to the break room. What this really meant was that we were supposed to duck the customers in an attempt to avoid wasting time by answering their questions (of which there were many since only a few sales associates would be working on the floor.) Even more surprising was their command to “try to kill the conversation as quickly as possible” with customers in our lines who were checking out. Of course don’t be rude or say “I’m not allowed to talk with you,” but just stick to “hello” and “thank you for shopping at WAL-MART.” Apparently the customer didn’t really want to talk to us at all and would rather get out of the store a few seconds quicker. I couldn’t help but wonder how I as an associate could still make the difference if my first priority was efficiency and not serving the customer.

Obviously this is another case of the WAL-MART Disconnect, a seemingly universal divorce between the company’s words and deeds. The company cloaks absolutely everything in their concern for their beloved customers. There are the signs in several of the aisles that say that they videotape customers “in order to bring you low prices.” And whenever lines are long the page for all register-trained associates to come and help inevitably ends with “in order to help out our customers.” Often the evidence is subtle, like the renovations to the store that summer. Aisles were narrowed. More of the unpopular self-check outs were added. There still were not enough cart-holders or any security in the parking lot. And most interestingly, turn-tables of bags were added to the end of every register. This contraption cleverly put the customer to work at loading their bags back into the cart, leaving me to scan and fill the bags much more quickly. Another consequences of the turn-table was the possibility of leaving behind bags (it was very easy to forget to pick up a few on the other side.) While this frequent occurrence was a pain for customers, WAL-MART made out quite well since it would restock the merchandise and resell it again. Whether this was intentional or not, I can’t say, but the simple fact of the matter is that if the customer doesn’t return (which was usually the case) the store made 100% profit on selling the item again.

An even more naked grab at a customer’s money is by over-charging customers. In November the Chicago Tribune published the results of a study conducted in the Midwest and California that concluded, “A majority of Wal-Mart stores tested in this evaluation of price accuracy demonstrated errors in pricing that exceeded federally accepted standards for large retail establishments.” This is an understatement since random purchases at 60 stores in California yielded a wrong price 8.3% of the time, quadruple the 2% required by the National Institute for Standards and Technology! I see this play out every day at my own store. The best example though was after Halloween when the store repeatedly cut the prices of its costumes (it doesn’t have the room necessary to store seasonal items.) Despite announced savings of 90% off, I cannot recall any of them wringing up properly all week long. No more than four or five customers caught the mistake and I missed dozens before realizing, never having been warned by any of my supervisors. I tried to correct the most grievous overcharges (the full priced $17 Star Wars outfit that should have cost $1.70…) but I couldn’t keep up with them all, a crime seemingly all my fellow cashiers were guilty of as well. Again, I can’t say for sure that this is a purposeful effort since it is probably partially a product of the stores chronic understaffing. Ultimately, what makes me think that the company is concertedly trying to rip off customers with this systemic practice is the striking number of times the mistake is made not in favor of the customer, but WAL-MART.

There is no doubt in my mind that profit ranks well ahead of customers as WAL-MART’s top priority since nearly every action taken by my store underscores this point. I think that discrediting the theory that WAL-MART’s singular purpose is caring for its customers is essential in order to prevent customers from shopping at the store. While some people will boycott the store for treating workers poorly and killing small businesses, at least an equal number would stop going to the store if they realized the company only wanted their money. After all, is such an unpleasant shopping experience worth saving a couple of bucks?

Monday, January 30, 2006

Welcome to Fort Walton

Not only do the hours that you work vary wildly, so too does the job that you are doing. Even though I was hired as a cashier, my job does not end there. It begins with the fact that Customer Service Manager’s are responsible for providing two 15-minute and one hour long lunch hour per 8 hour shift for all employees on the front-end (Cashiers, People Greeters, and Customer Service Desk Associates.) In order to do this and combat the pervasive understaffing, the CSM’s try to “cross-train” all employees, meaning train them in several different positions. This gives WAL-MART the flexibility it needs to pull off Mission Impossible, and supposedly is the key for associates to advance up the company ladder. (However, I’m not sure if it is so much the knowledge of multiple positions as it is a willingness to be submissive and play the game that leads to ones advancement…) What all this means is that many times you are never given a register to call home and spend all day bouncing around the store spelling breaks and lunches.

Obviously this arrangement works out better for the company than the employee who never knows what to expect. The fact that WAL-MART always keeps us guessing is annoying, and sometimes much more than that. For example, with winter approaching the job of People Greeter or cashiering near the doors became a very cold one – it’s like a wind tunnel over there. The problem is that we never know in advance when we will be by the door and whether or not to bundle up (other sections of the store get downright balmy so forget just playing it safe.) Here is the worst part: we aren’t allowed to have extra clothing at the register. CSM’s regularly come down on cashiers who try to bundle up, insisting that the vest and nametag be worn on top. I watched one of them go so far as to refuse to allow an old women who was freezing on register to wear a coat underneath since the vest didn’t fit properly. Adding to the problem is the fact that we only have one coat rack for 450 employees. Coats bulge in every direction of the rack and are strewn across much of the floor in the break room. Higher-ups often find a cubicle or somewhere else to stash their coat, but those of us who aren’t as fortunate simply leave them in the car. And forget running to grab your coat out of your car or off the break room floor while on the clock since this is the very definition of “time theft.” Within a few weeks of starting at the store I had come down with my first cold, which would later become the flu since I did not have any health insurance.

And this is just one of the bad things about guarding the door. Door guard is a much more accurate title than the official name for the position: People Greeter. You know who I am talking about, the usually elderly individual who greets customers as they enter the store. WAL-MART has made a big deal about its people greeters, often featuring them in commercials, since they represent how much they care about their customers and how “our people make the difference.” But the training that I was given focused exclusively on how to prevent shoplifting or “shrinkage,” adding as an afterthought that I was supposed to say hello to customers who entered the store. When the alarms went off – which was quite often – I was to politely ask the customer to come inside and produce their receipt, then search for and deactivate the troublesome alarm. As I am recording all of this information in our security log I should be apologizing for the inconvenience, never once accusing them of stealing. The priorities were crystal clear: someone must be watching the doors at all times to prevent shoplifting, and, hey, while they are there, they should greet the customers with a big smile. Make no mistake about it, this is the single worst job in the entire store and inexplicably it is also the lowest paid (pay grade 1 of 7.) You have to stand on the hard concrete all day as time moves by agonizingly slow. As bad as the boredom was, it was having to greet the customers that I dreaded. The door was much worse than the register in this regard since more often than not the person would look right through me without saying a word after I greeted them. The whole experience makes you feel simply worthless.

Our security personnel took me aside on several occasions, quizzing me about how to authenticate a receipt and reminding me about how important my job was to preventing shrinkage. I was to watch for anything suspicious: anxious individuals, repeated comings and goings, mysterious bulges. These two women, full-time and salaried, spent their day in plainclothes, trailing customers and discreetly spying on them while pretending to shop themselves. Occasionally they would spot someone suspicious for me to stop and demand a receipt or even search their unopened packages. (Fairly or not, every single time I was given this warning the suspect was in their teens or early-twenties…) When they did catch someone a team of three people would swoop in and whisk them back to the secret security room where they kept all of the cameras. The police would arrive after a few minutes, on one of the several visits that they would pay us each day, no doubt to scare the hell out of the accused shoplifter before WAL-MART inevitably pressed charges, to the fullest extent of the law, mind you.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Scheduling Hell

I knew it was coming, but it was annoying nonetheless. When my two week training period ended, so too did my schedule being pegged to that of my mentor. Gone were the 5 consecutive 9 hour days followed by the “weekend,” albeit on Monday and Tuesday. In its place was a much more hellish schedule that I knew to be more typical at WAL-MART.

While every week varied wildly, there were several common characteristics from week to week. First off, despite only being “part-time” I was scheduled five days a week with only one exception. What this meant was that more often than not I would have to drive an hour roundtrip for less than a full shift; especially popular was scheduling four hours in the middle of the day, which are barely worth the cost of gas. Secondly, these two days off were hardly ever back to back. At one point I went for 32 days without getting a WAL-MART weekend, meaning any two consecutive days off.

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, was the stores propensity to schedule short turn-arounds; working late one night only to be in early the next morning. It was common place to hear of door guards working past 11:00 pm and starting again the following day at 7:00 am. While I never had a turn-around quite that bad, I would work past midnight and have to be in at 9:30 am. Factor in extra time to clock out and in, a half-hour commute both ways, and time to prepare for work the next morning, even if you go straight to bed you are lucky to get seven hours sleep.

So here is what all of that looks like:
Saturday 5:00 pm – 12:00 am
Sunday 6:00 pm – 1:15 am
Monday Off
Tuesday 9:45 am – 6:45 pm
Wednesday 4:00 pm – 11:45 pm
Thursday 9:45 am – 6:45 pm
Friday Off

And another example:
Saturday 6:00 pm – 10:00 pm
Sunday Off
Monday 2:00 pm – 8:00 pm
Tuesday 3:00 pm – 12:00 am
Wednesday 6:15 pm – 11:00 pm
Thursday 2:00 pm – 8:45 pm
Friday Off

WAL-MART eagerly admits that “For years we have had a scheduling system in place that is designed to match associates’ work schedules to projected customer flow to our stores.” But this justification doesn’t explain the lack of consideration to the person who then has to rearrange their life to this clockwork. My being scheduled until 11:45 pm on a Wednesday night and in Thursday morning at 9:45 am has nothing to do with the demands of customers; believe me, it was as dead as could be at 10 pm that Wednesday. No, WAL-MART illustrates an utter lack of concern for the lives of its associates because it has an utter lack of concern for the lives of its associates. Many of my fellow associates blame their hellish schedule on “a computer down in Bentonville.” As far as I can discern this is true, since the home office seems to design a template outlining how many associates are needed when.

The maddening aspect of all this is how actual people are lost in the shuffle. If WAL-MART cared even a little bit about the people who work for them, they would put a little bit of effort into building reasonable schedules. While the company no doubt appreciates the flexibility that not caring gives them, it is hardly so important of a benefit that renders ruining a workers life necessary. And if you think I am being melodramatic here remember that many WAL-MART employees must also juggle childcare, try to work in second jobs or classes, and hopefully find a few minutes to spend time with their equally busy loved ones. Ultimately this approach benefits no one in the long run since it greatly contributes to employee dissatisfaction and eventually turnover. Indeed, if the company ever wanted to remake its image through deeds rather than just words, and care for its employees, revamping its hellish scheduling system would be a fine place to start.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

A Cool $42

One big reason that I wanted to take this project on was a desire to settle the furious public debate being waged about the corporation by the various sides of the political divide. Conservatives were quick to point out that WAL-MART's low prices greatly benefited the poor, with Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post using some horrendous math to suggest that the store saves poor American's $200 billion per year, more than food stamps and the earned-income tax credit combined. On the other side of the spectrum Liza Featherstone, author of "Selling Women Short," a comprehensive look at the historic class action lawsuit that accuses WAL-MART of gender discrimination, put it this way:
"In a chilling reversal of Henry Ford's strategy, which was to pay his workers amply so they could buy Ford cars, Wal-Mart's stingy compensation policies contribute to an economy in which, increasingly, workers can only afford to shop at Wal-Mart."
Whether or not this cold-hearted logic passed through Walton's head is uncertain; what we do know is that history did work out this way. There are countless studies to show that when WAL-MART moves into town it drives down wages and small businesses into bankruptcy. But I see this play out on a smaller level in my store, with every employee sending a significant chunk of their paycheck directly back to the company in order to buy groceries or any other necessities (and occasionally luxuries.) Bizarrely, many associates would come back to WAL-MART on their day off in order to do their weekly shopping, something that I wouldn't be caught dead doing for oh so many reasons.

In addition to convenience, many associates are drawn to shopping at WAL-MART by the 10% employee discount. However, this discount is only for immediate family, does not cover items that are on sale, and most importantly, does not cover any food. I have made it a habit to announce an employees discount to them in an effort to get across how shitty a perk this really is. "And 5 cents is your discount..." Essentially, WAL-MART has captured the market of 1.3 million American's, nothing to slouch at. This stranglehold is never more pronounced than at lunchtime. Nearly every associate will clock out for lunch then run back into the store to pick up a container of popcorn shrimp or a frozen dinner along with a soda and some other junk food. Although this meal is still meager and unhealthy, it nevertheless adds right up, easily breaking 3, 4, or even 5 dollars.

Therefore I have been bringing my own lunches, a luxury I am well aware many of the associates do not have. My seemingly modest lunches of rice and bean leftovers have drawn ooh's and ahh's, and feeling guilty I have tried to cut back as much as possible. Not helping matters is all of the people who content themselves with a bag of chips and a soda from the vending machines, or even worse, not eating at all. I routinely chide my friends -- especially the young women -- to eat something substantial since far too many of them treat their poverty as an incentive to diet. One woman summed it up tragically when I asked her if the tiny burrito she was sitting down with was dinner. "Yeah, if you are poor" she sighed. "The second week [after payday] is always meager."

Sadly, the first week after payday isn't much better. As I said earlier, my starting wage as a cashier was $7.40 per hour, which to be fair, is higher than my state's minimum wage. However, the livable wage for my county -- the amount needed to cover basic living expenses such as housing, transportation, child care, etc. -- is $11.70. Making matters worse is the fact that WAL-MART considers full-time to be 34 hours a week, and at my store a third of hourly workers are part-time, like myself. In other words, for an eight hour shift I earn $59.20. But taxes shrink this amount by 20%, closer to $47. And two gallons of gas for my 30 minute drive each way in to work (which I would say is only slightly above the norm for workers at my store) lop off another $5. So at the end of the day, after slaving for 8 hours on register, I take home a cool $42. Like I said though, many days I don't even get a full shift, instead going in for only 4 hours of work, or $19. As a cashier getting part-time hours at my WAL-MART Supercenter, I will not break the $10,000 mark in earnings for the year.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Our People Make The Difference

My first couple of weeks at WAL-MART were pretty rough. What made it bearable were the associates that I worked with; their people truly made the difference. A single interesting breakroom conversation could make my entire day worthwhile. Don’t get me wrong, getting employees to open up to me was not an easy task. For the first few weeks I focused nearly exclusively on getting to know as many of my co-workers as possible and slowly building a rapport with them (not an easy task since this required me to memorize a couple hundred names...) I knew that a new associate coming in with a barrage of questions would raise a lot of eyebrows and only cause them to clam up, so I practiced as much restraint as possible, letting them open up to me on their own terms. And they did.

Some people were very friendly, like the two greying women who were veterans of the sales floor and welcomed me during my first lunch break. It was fascinating to listen to them defend one of the company's policies then turn around and lament that they couldn't afford to spend $10 on a Halloween costume without a trace of irony. Others, like the rambunctious associate I met in the parking lot minutes later, mocked WAL-MART openly for its foolish company cheer and its customers for only caring about "everyday low prices." Sadly, few other associates were this brave. The vast majority fell in between these two extremes, doing their job without complaint and refusing to hold the corporation responsible for their predicament. I found this tendency to be both honorable and maddening, ultimately falling in love with my co-workers for both their strength and weakness.

But what made the job of befriending my fellow associates even harder was WAL-MART’s usage of a classic tactic of oppressors: conquer and divide. Whenever possible the company attempts to isolate its workers, the obvious aim being to prevent any attempts at unionizing the store. Example: there is no official area for employees to take a smoke break outside. Instead when they are on break they are supposed to smoke in their car, which many do. Another instance is how the break room is almost always a mess, and with only 20 seats far too small to accommodate the 460 employees that work there. In addition to this, management seizes every opportunity to reduce it even further by storing shipments or layaway packages, removing tables and chairs, and not providing enough space in the refrigerator or coat-rack. This inhospitable environment leads many employees to lunch elsewhere, going home, going for fast-food, or going to eat alone in their car. The few employees who do stay still isolate themselves, many talking in hushed tones on their cell phones or losing themselves in the community newspaper. My early attempts to strike up conversation were often awkward and pained since that clearly didn’t happen here... WAL-MART wouldn't have it any other way.

Under Pressure

As I said in the last post, cashiering is not an easy job and in truth is a fairly stressful one. However, the stress that surrounds the position often comes from other places, or more specifically, other people. To understand what I mean I must start by outlining my understanding of the nature of the beast. In short, WAL-MART is a moneymaking machine whose primary objective is to create large profits. The recipe for success that they have struck on is genius in its simplicity: sell a high volume of merchandise by setting low prices. In order for this to work WAL-MART must keep its overhead as low as possible, in other words, minimize every expense as much as possible. The result? WAL-MART is incredibly cheap. I cannot overstate this point. The example I liked to give was how I need pens to do my job as a cashier. WAL-MART does not provide pens. Therefore, every month I need to go out and buy a pack of pens. I don’t share this story because I care about buying the pens (although it is kind of outrageous), rather it is because it is the perfect example of how the company squeezes the last penny out of anyone around it. Governments, suppliers, customers, employees are all fair game.

One of the biggest expenses for any company is payroll, and as a result WAL-MART is consistently understaffed. It isn’t for lack of labor; personnel had a stack of applications on file not to mention the many part-time employees like myself who needed more hours. Instead, this is a concerted effort to make the individual stores do more with less. And when they are successful they are rewarded with even less than less, no doubt due to the simplistic logic that if they could run Customer Service Desk with 3 people, why not see if they can run it with 2? Employees are constantly given more and more duties, a clearly unsustainable strategy that puts increasing pressure on the employees. For example, WAL-MART never has enough cashiers for the volume of traffic. This is not an accident. The company intentionally keeps its lines just long enough to save money but not lose too many customers. This doesn’t always work and customers do get angry, taking their frustration out on the employees. Again, everyone loses but WAL-MART.

Furthermore, the burden for everything is shifted onto the employee. WAL-MART has countless rules on the books in order to protect itself legally. However, by not providing enough resources for everything, the corporation creates an environment in which the rules must be broken, and the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of the employee. For example, associates are expected to work the hours that they are assigned and part-time employees cannot exceed 33 hours per week (the point at which they would be entitled to benefits.) Problem is there are never enough associates to get people out on time and you can hardly just up and leave without a replacement. Consequently, by the end of the week many associates are projected to break the threshold, a coachable offense. [“Coaching” is WAL-MART’s cute colloquial for getting written-up and generally entails getting hauled into the manager’s office and bitched out. Written coachings go on your record and may lead to your getting denied promotions or even fired.] The solution? Managers routinely have workers take an extra-long lunch break; one of my friends was forced to sit in the break room for an 1:45 minutes off the clock because they didn’t get him out on time earlier in the week! This is but one of countless instances of pressure being transferred onto the employee.

As bad as all of this is there is an even more sinister undertone that I picked up on at Morning Meeting. These meetings were made infamous for the theatrics of the WAL-MART cheer (Give me a W! Give me an A!...) but the meetings in my store were far less peppy. The employees seemed to appreciate the break from the floor, but the browbeating that we were given hardly seemed worth it to me. One of the quickly rising assistant managers singled out different department’s and people for low sales percentages and high shelf availability. Subtlety was not the goal: “You really killed us yesterday” he griped. Store sales were down because of us, we weren’t trying hard enough. I came to realize that management was purposefully engaging in low-level psychological warfare against its own employees. Everything action is geared toward convincing us that we need to give them more. Sadly, most of the workers have no trouble reading between the lines: you are worthless. No doubt a lack of self-esteem among associates helps to create the highly submissive, dependent workforce that WAL-MART depends upon for success.

Struggling on Register

Cashiering is not an easy job. On the surface this does appear to be the case, since you just ring up them items and put them in bags, right? Needless to say there is more that goes into it and this is hardly the unskilled position that many consider it to be. Compounding the difficulty of cashiering is WAL-MART’s half-assed approach to training anyone. According to the plan, new associates would be assigned a mentor to train us, where at first we would observe them cashiering and then switch rolls, going solo only when we were completely comfortable. My mentor – a very friendly older man who would become one of my best friends in the store – did a great job of trying to show me the ropes and encourage me. However, the problem was that he rarely got the chance. Due to a shortage of staffing the Customer Service Manager’s, or CSM's, took my mentor and I off register and had us on the door as People Greeter’s for most of my first week (but more on this absurd job later.) When we were on register observing each other it was hardly a leisurely timetable, and I found myself separated from my mentor on my first day on register, scrambling to find help.

I had joked with my friends beforehand that I was dangerously unequipped for this job, which we all secretly knew was not really a joke at all. To be a good cashier you must be quick, adept at multi-tasking, have a good memory, be submissive, calm under pressure, as well as outgoing and cheery while maintaining a thick skin… all things that I am not. In addition to scanning and bagging items there are codes to memorize, gift cards to sell, alarms to deactivate, price checks to search for, loans and change to order, coupons to scan, check to cash, not to mention the utility payments, WIC orders, food stamps, employee discounts, and multiple means of payment. And this is just a list of your typical tasks, let alone the unusual ones that few knew how to deal with that would continue to crop up months later. It was a struggle as I rang up items too many times, didn’t see others, forgot to scan coupons, crushed merchandise, and didn’t give the proper change. And this was just during the two days that my mentor was watching me.

As complicated as these jobs could get, by far the most difficult part of cashiering is dealing with the customers. Now I have always enjoyed interacting with people, and genuinely believe that people are naturally well intentioned. But if there was ever a place to make me question humanity it is the checkout lines at WAL-MART. The first part of my job as a cashier is to smile and greet the customer, preferably by name, and ask them if they found everything that they were looking for. The problem is that many customers do not feel it necessary to respond to us or acknowledge our existence in any way. While this is thoroughly discouraging and disrespectful, I would rather be ignored by a customer than have them be nasty and take out all of their problems on me. I try to be understanding by reasoning that many of the customers are poor and lead stressful lives, or that WAL-MART creates such an unpleasant shopping experience that it is natural for them to lash out at me as a symbol of the corporation. However, when a customer is actually yelling at you for something totally out of your control, this knowledge isn’t especially reassuring. Most frustrating of all is the fact that you can’t talk back, you have to stand there and take it, or else you will be fired.

And all of this has to be done at a breakneck pace, for speed is the name of the game when cashiering at WAL-MART. IPH, or Items Per Hour is the company’s way of calculating this skill and thus is golden standard for all associates. The computers in our registers keep track of everything: including every transaction down to the last penny, total number of items voided, and how many items we ring up per hour. This single minded obsession among management is obvious: raises are tied to factors such as IPH; the results are posted outside the break room with the top five IPH’s highlighted; the associate of the month seems to coincide with the highest IPH for that period; there is even a separate award at the annual award ceremony given to the fastest cashier. Not surprisingly this fixation on keeping up your IPH is passed on to the cashiers; nearly every tip given to me by other associates focused on how I could do this (the most popular trick was to enter that the customer was going to pay by check whenever you have down time in order to pause the clock.) This constant need to go faster, faster, faster is obviously quite stressful, and in the end doesn’t serve the best interest of anyone… except for WAL-MART.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

"You picked a good place to work"

Arriving early, I met my two fellow new-hires at the Dunkin’ Donuts located inside the store (the fourth hire did not show.) Both were young like me; the girl was painfully shy, the guy was returning to the store after quitting a few weeks ago. The same Training Associate took us back to personnel with little fanfare, giving us a laughably brief tour on the way (and that is the fire extinguisher...) Here there was more paperwork in which she tried to talk us into buying the WAL-MART credit card and other schemes, all geared toward us giving some of our meager earnings back to the company. In a move polished with practice she played all of us off each other to pressure us into accepting “open-availability,” meaning that we could be scheduled to work any hour, and I do mean any since this was a 24-hour Supercenter.

With that out of the way we dove into a stack of training videos, eight deep. 15-20 minutes each, they covered a wide-range of topics: company history, how to protect your back when lifting, dealing with food stamp customers. My favorite though was “You picked a good place to work,” a scathing attack on labor unions. It worked in all the expected lines: they aren’t anti-union, they are pro-associate; unions are only in it for the membership dues (which could instead be invested in company stock); unions can’t promise you anything, but everything is back on the table at negotiations; unions aren’t necessary at WAL-MART since all employees are free to air grievances with management without fear of retaliation through the “Open Door Policy”; as well as a bizarre comparison between declining union membership and the company’s growth in the past few decades (which I guess means WAL-MART is winning...)

After lunch we started the Computer Based Learning modules or CBL’s. I quickly realized that formal orientation was over and the remainder of my training would be spoon-fed to me not by a person, but by a far more efficient computer in the form of these numbingly boring lessons. With topics like cleaning infectious diseases, there was little of interest in the CBL’s. The exceptions to this were the two modules entitled “Restricted Items” and “Integrity,” both of which dramatically forewarned of mistakes that would lead to “the worst day in an associates life.” Funny stuff. In order to pass many of the modules you need to score 100%; it took me 4 tries and 1 ½ hours to pass the CBL on selling alcohol. Completing the 29 CBL’s would take me the rest of the afternoon and the entire second day of orientation. I was surprised to find myself being won over by their propaganda, and to be honest this WAL-MART didn’t sound like that bad of a place to work. The company seemed genuinely concerned about serving its customers, taking care of its associates, and above all else, obeying the law. However, this was the company on paper and obviously official training materials would say all of the right things. Sure enough, my first two weeks of training on the front-end would show me just how far off this alternate universe was.

Screening for Non-Conformists

My first step was certainly straightforward enough: get hired. However, I was well aware of what I was up against. An excellent article about WAL-MART in The Nation a while back explained how:
“the company screens out potential union supporters through its hiring process: in addition to excluding those with union histories, the company also administers personality tests to weed out those likely to be sympathetic to unions, and offers managers tips on how to spot such people.”
With this in mind, my goal going in was to be as honest as possible without lying, not because I owe that to them but because I didn’t want to give them an easy excuse for firing me later on. I would tell them I graduated from college but play down my more suspicious activities such as volunteering for a year of community service, my activism against the war, and certainly my working on a gubernatorial campaign.

All applications had to be filed on an in-store computer, which was greuling and surprisingly difficult, taking a full 50 minutes to complete. As I awaited their phone call I began to fear that I was too honest in providing background information, revealing my political science major and saying that the least I would work for was $8 per hour. Overall, I did well, navigating the tricky and repetitive 67 questions that focused largely on drug use and stealing from employers. (My favorites ones were: Is someone who steals $5 a year from an employer a thief? Is there room in every company for a non-conformist?) Five days later I received the message I was looking for: my interview would be the next day at 1:30 pm.

On my arrival the “Training Associate” took me out back and proceeded to lay out a great deal of paperwork for me to fill out concerning contracts (or lack thereof). The woman then asked me a series of disarmingly difficult questions about my last job, which I stumbled through, again being just a little too candid. Soon I hit my stride, throwing in all the right buzzwords and even stooped so low as to say that I wanted to work at WAL-MART because it seemed like such a friendly place to work. This was the right tact; there is no such thing as too big of a suck-up at WAL-MART. Case in point was when a member of management eventually showed up to take over for the Training Associate and conduct a second interview. After regurgitating the same questions that had just been asked in greater depth we moved on to some concerns that the computer has “flagged” on my questionnaire… not wrong answers, mind you! Questions in need of further discussion was my slight agreement that managers deserve more perks than employees and that employees should criticize an employer if they believe it to be wrong. Apparently anything less than “strongly agree” on these matters warned them that I might be one of those non-conformists, which of course there is no room for in this corporation. I backtracked on all of these questions and my request for $8 per hour, spinelessly settling for $7.40 per hour as a temporary hire part-time cashier. Due to the upcoming holiday shopping season the store was only hiring employees on a temporary basis, that is, for a three-month period where they can work you as much or as little as they want without paying you any benefits. The young female manager kindly assured me that they would be in touch and that I should be in good shape, pending my background check, or course.

Five days later the good news came. Show up at 9 am on Wednesday for part one of the two-day orientation. Bring two forms of ID and please don’t wear jeans.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


With $290 billion in revenue during its last fiscal year, it is the world’s largest corporation. With over 5,500 stores and 7.5 billion shoppers every year, it is the largest retailer far and away. With over 1.3 million employees it is the largest private employer in the U.S. economy. To call it a goliath doesn’t do it justice; WAL-MART is the most powerful non-governmental entity the world has ever seen.

And it is not a benevolent giant. As the “Most Admired” company for two of the past three years (according to Fortune magazine), WAL-MART is leading the U.S. economy, and indeed the global market, in a petrifying direction. With a singular focus on the bottom line, it puts profits before people, or any other consideration for that matter. The stores low prices have been cited by some political pundits and corporate apologists to greatly benefit the poor; in truth the hidden costs to all of us has created an explosion of poverty in this country. It's associates are the definition of working poor, with WAL-MART dealing a massive blow to organized labor and the rights of all workers. And this doesn’t even take into account the legions of sweatshop workers that the company has spawned throughout the developing world. Or, for that matter, its role in suburban sprawl and environmental degradation. Indeed, as a retailing monopoly, WAL-MART sits at the crossroads of the difficult questions my generation faces about economic justice, reckless materialism, and socially-conscious consumerism.

For all of these reasons, and many more, I will infiltrate WAL-MART and become a low-wage retail worker. This will be an opportunity to learn firsthand about the struggles facing the working poor and to live in solidarity with them. In addition to this my experience should be a means to educate the public about the stores high costs. Ideally, both of these will translate into a way to spark change for the better by reforming WAL-MART.

Unfortunately, WAL-MART’s tendency to retaliate against dissident employees has forced me to take several precautions. First of all, the dates of these posts will not match since they are based on previous entries in a journal that I have been keeping the past few months while working at the store. However, the posts will be roughly chronological and the extra time has given me an opportunity to base my conclusions on a multitude of experiences. More importantly, I will have to keep the identities of my co-workers in the strictest of confidence and will only share anecdotes that will not betray who they are. While these steps will undoubtedly detract from the power of my experience, I believe that there is still a story worthy of being told.